Chances are that if you haven’t lived in Finland, you’ve never heard of Kingston Wall. I might not have either if it hadn’t been for Mikael, a local musician friend here in Vaasa (a small city on the Finnish west coast) where I’ve been living for a bit. One day, over a beer at our favourite pub, he insisted I listen to them. I did; got instantly hooked; and wondered why more of the world didn’t get to listen to what I think is one of the best-kept secrets of the Finnish rock scene. That last bit is in the past tense because Kingston Wall, a progressive-cum-psychedelic rock band formed in 1987 in Helsinki, disbanded in 1994. Its frontman, guitarist and lead singer died the following year, and, for all practical purposes, the band doesn’t exist any longer.
Or so I thought. Late last month, the two remaining members of Kingston Wall, Jukka Jylli, who plays bass, and Sami Kuoppamäki, who plays the drums, began a tour performing gigs across Finland. Their tour began on what would have been the 50th birthday of their late lead singer and driving force of the band, Petri Walli, who, in 1995, took his life by jumping off the roof of a church in Helsinki. Jylli and Kuoppamäki were joined by a trio, the Von Hertzen Brothers (VHB), a psychedelic rock band also from Finland. As soon as ticket sales for their tour began, the gigs were sold out but early this month, thanks to Mikael, we managed to get tickets for their gig in Seinäjoki, a nearby town.
It was pure magic. The venue, Seinäjoki’s Rytmikorjaamo, a converted warehouse, was packed to the seams with nearly a thousand people (huge for Finland’s tiny population of around five million), showing up a couple of hours before the band began playing a little after 10pm on a cold Saturday night. The crowd was eclectic: old hippies; hard-rock fiends; and even young newbies who just wanted to see what the fuss was all about. The band—the two remaining members and VHB—played an extended set list, jamming, improvising, and wowing the motley audience till the early hours of Sunday. Rytmikorjaamo is a tiny venue compared to ones that I’ve seen gigs in but the mood and all-round vibe that the band spread with its music and light shows in the background was like that of a giant arena. I’ve seen 20,000 people go crazy at a Phish gig in Madison Square Garden. The craziness was no less at Rytmikorjaamo.
Kingston Wall, sadly, were a short-lived band when they still used to be a trio. Vocalist and frontman Walli wrote most of the music, the lyrics, and also ran the band’s own record label. During their career, Kingston Wall released three studio albums, I, II, and III—Tri-Logy. Later, after Walli’s death, there were quite a few releases of live recordings, remixes and box sets. When you hear Kingston Wall, it can seem like a throwback to the 1970s. Influenced by early hard rock and prog-rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, there is a deep psychedelic feel to their sound. But there is a distinctive uniqueness too. Walli was influenced by Eastern mysticism—notably, he made several trips to India where he had a spiritual mentor in Goa—and much of the band’s music and lyrics (they sang mostly in English) show that.
Their second album, II, is what I would recommend to anyone who wants to begin discovering them. The 10 songs on the original version of that album are probably most representative of the band’s sound. It’s difficult to pick the best track off an album that is packed with great songs but the trippy, 7-plus-minute Shine On Me is the standout track. Beginning with a horn solo before the softly sung vocals kick in and the lead guitar riff takes over, it can quickly become an earworm evoking the glorious era of 1970s rock but with the unmistakable hues of Eastern music.
At the Rytmikorjaamo gig, the band launched into Shine On Me for an encore. It was followed by a medley—I’m Not the One, segueing into Jimi Hendrix’s Fire, but performed in trademark Kingston Wall style. The 15-song set list included several originals from the band’s catalogue—ones to which I could see the crowd swaying and singing along—but also a few surprises. Donna Summer’s I Feel Love got the Kingston Wall treatment, as did a couple of tunes by well-known Finnish musicians—folk and world music group Piirpauke’s Konevitsan Kirkonkellot (Church Bells Of Konevets), based on an old Karelian tune; and the veteran septuagenarian Finnish singer Danny’s Kuusamo, a hit from the 1970s.
Music nerds usually have a set of favourite bands that might sometimes seem obscure to others (I have a few from the 1970s that regularly make my playlist!) but when a band as accomplished and talented as Kingston Wall doesn’t reach larger audiences, it’s a bit of a shame. During their seven-year career, the trio played many gigs but only one of them was outside Finland (at a venue in Estonia). With more publicity and, perhaps, some overseas tours, that could have changed. The re-formed Kingston Wall are currently touring Finland and I’m told they’ll play the vibrant festival circuit here as well, but it would be a pity if the world outside Finland doesn’t get to hear them.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks from ‘Kingston Wall’ to bookend this week
1. ‘Another Piece of Cake’ from ‘III—Tri-Logy’
2. ‘Istwan’ from ‘II’
3. ‘Shine On Me’ from ‘II’
4. ‘Fire’ from ‘I’
5. ‘Nepal’ from ‘I’
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